Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Michael Sone: A Sone Kendo History of Hawaii Part II

Like many American Japanese in Hawaii – as Michael Sone terms many like him – Sone began his kendo training at an early age under his grandfather, Tetsunosuke Sone. Under him, he learned traditional kendo, emphasizing on the virtues one’s character through the use of the sword. Now leading the Mitsune Dojo, Sone took some time to discuss some aspects of Hawaiian kendo, such as his grandfather, Arnold Fukutomi, and the future of kendo. All images provided by Michael Sone. This is the second part of a two part interview. Read the first part here.

MAYTT: The Second World War changed the lives for many Japanese American communities, with Internment in Hawaii being completely different from Internment on Mainland America. How did Internment affect kendo practice in Hawaii and how did Hawaiian kenshi pick up the pieces once Internment and the War was over?

Michael Sone with his wife, Phyllis (standing right), and his two daughters, Niki (kneeling left), and Shelia (kneeling right)

MS: The American Japanese community endeavored to be American first and Japanese second.  The loyalty demonstrated by the Nisei, second generation Japanese, during the War in the all American-Japanese 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, who were the most decorated of World War II, said it all. We are not Japanese American, we are American Japanese, as they would teach us. Their parents having been interned and their loyalty being proven on the bloody battlefield, kendo was far from being something to share with their children. This YouTube video about the rescue of the lost battalion will help explain why. 

At the outbreak of the War, Tetsunosuke Sone, like all the Japanese school kyoshi headmasters, were arrested and sent to Lordsburg Justice Department Camp in New Mexico. Shortly after that, the US Army came to the school and gathered up all judo tatami mats and some of the kendo equipment and burnt them in a pile in the middle of the school ground, this was the end of bushido on Maui – the Maui Butokukai was gone. 

After the war, the proponents of bushido moved over to sumo and judo, which became sportized and more acceptable to American Japanese. Kendo tried to ride the wave of revival of the sportized sumo and judo only to see its senior members join either of the latter or quit. In 1955, the few remaining clubs got together to form the Hawaii Kendo Federation and in 1957 the Maui Butokukai was invited to join. At that time, I was five years old and had just started on the dojo floor. The Maui dojo was declining, having no new youths and reviewing the cost of new gear, bogu, as being too expensive and sumo’s growth and popularity led the leadership to conclude the kendo was too difficult to promote. Sumo offered cash prizes and items as large as refrigerators to the winners. Sumo, at the time, was described as having two pencils lying flat on the table with the sharpened points facing each other trying to push each other out. Today’s sumo is described as the eraser side facing each other trying to push each other out.

Hawaii had to await the arrival of a new immigrant group from Japan to help spark interest in kendo again. These individuals were absorbed into existing clubs or started their own dojo. As a result, growth began but bitter feuds developed, which has kept stagnations and incessant pit falls away. The postwar sportized kendo was forming. 

The one other Butokukai dojo, the Mikami’s Kaimuki club on Oahu joined the Hawaii Kendo Federation but suffered rejection as being too strict or old school. Getting beaten up was no fun. New students went to other clubs. I remember a comment by one new student who said he would never go back to kendo because he got so many thrust to the throat he could no longer talk. Some of these other clubs were on the esoteric side. Zen dojos practiced an active form of Buddhism where students learned a more spiritual side of the art. This was also a part that attracted me to study kendo’s spiritual side. I conclude that only partial enlightenment will be found in kendo’s practice. A much more complete answer will be found outside of kendo, in The Urantia Book.

MAYTT: I can see how it would be hard to reestablish kendo after the War. Hawaii is a hub for prominent kendo practitioners and pioneers. Outside of your father and others mentioned, who do you feel helped pioneer and spread kendo in the mid to late twentieth century to today in the Aloha State? What set these individuals apart from their contemporaries?

MS: In 1965, Doctor Noburo Akagi started Aiea Taiheiji Godo Kai and would lead kendo into true postwar renaissance. He wasn’t respected by some of the local sensei and was refused recommendation to test for fifth dan in Japan. This ignited his spirit, and the students of the Aiea Taiheiji Kendo Club began winning all the tournaments. However, by 1976 he had attained kyoshi, a little premature by today’s standards and 1977 he attained seventh dan.

He represented kendo magnificently after joining the Hawaii Kendo Federation (HKF) and becoming president for many years. He also held positions in the International Kendo Federation and the Japan’s Physicians Kendo Federation. These accomplishments and those of one of his students in particular brought the Hawaii Kendo Federation into a position of special recognition with the International Kendo Federation. In 1988, the Hawaii Kendo Federation was established as an independent organization of the International Kendo Federation. HKF is allowed to send its own contingent to the World Kendo Championship just like a separate country as well as having its own rank testing. HKF chose to limit to fifth dan but not limited by the IKF. It was Dr. Akagi’s determination and regal manner which convinced the majority of the International Kendo Federation to vote Hawaii in. To this day, the Hawaii Kendo Federation must put in a good showing in the World Kendo Championships as it is always questioned why it is not a part of the All US Kendo Federation.  

In the early 1970s, I practiced with Akagi Sensei and found that kendo could be truly enjoyable and challenging. This was the sportized modern kendo and not the prewar life and death gekken kendo. It was then that I first saw an extremely good middle school first dan kenshi, the late Arnold Fukutomi seventh dan. He would go on to fill the shoes of Dr. Akagi as president of Hawaii Kendo Federation and Team Hawaii lead kenshi and coach until his sudden death at the age of fifty-seven in 2014. Undoubtedly, his performance on the competitive floor helped convince the International Kendo Federation to accept Hawaii into the IKF now FIK.

It was these personalities and so many others that have contributed to the evolution of kendo in Hawaii. The young, new kenshi brought up in the shadow of these great men will one day cast a shadow of their own under which kendo will thrive.

MAYTT: When did you assume the role of Chief Instructor at Mitsune Kendo Dojo? Could you tell me about that experience and how did your perspective on kendo change once you assumed that role?

MS: In the late 1990s, I was practicing Kendo on Maui at a Hongwanji under Kotaro Terada Sensei kyoshi. He was the retired chief kendo instructor of the Japanese Naval Defense. Later, he was planning on moving back to Japan and hoped to pass the club onto me. I had arranged to practice at the YMCA, this was not acceptable to his daughter second dan and I was asked to leave. I apologized to her, but there was no going back. In the meantime, the YMCA had advertised my kendo class and I had a full group of eight new students, plus my wife and daughters. This group went on to attain ranks from first kyu to fourth dan. I was told to give the club some unique name, so I named the dojo Mitsune, for Light Root or Three Roots, like yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The light represents the virtues of the sword.

The three main instructors of Mitsune Kendo Dojo: Ryan Nagata (left), Michael Sone (center), and Suji Yoshimoto (right). Michael terms this group as “another three roots.”

When I started, Mr. Okaji, a wise old sensei, told me, don’t hit so hard, otherwise no one will want to practice with you. This was true, I really didn’t need to strike as if cutting through armor. Forget what my grandfather would say about that I was just polishing his kabuto, or helmet. Remembering practice with Dr. Akagi, it was fun. What got the interest of the group of new students was my spare armour or bogu. The first student, Jeromy, who shared it in a talk about kendo in his Japanese Club in high school. Interest in kendo was sparked by this one student that led to the growth of Mitsune dojo. 

MAYTT: Despite kendo being popular within the Japanese population of Hawaii, the art is not as popular as other Japanese martial arts like karate or judo. Why do you think the art is not as popular with most of the population and have there been programs or plans to remedy the situation?

MS: Back in the early 1970s, I operated a martial arts academy, teaching karate and kendo at the Maui Community College, which gave me firsthand experience concerning your question. The picture with my father and grandfather was taken at the dedication of the dojo. My karate class was full, teaching both men and women and in kendo, I had just one student. On the karate side, students wanted to learn self-defense and on the kendo side, my one student wanted to learn about the samurai. When I showed the basics of kendo training, it was just too difficult for him, but he never forgot it. As for judo, which recently has become a high school interscholastic sport, its growth is now assured having the benefit of the school system to promote it. Judo instructors who were once doing it for free now are paid coaches. Kendo demonstrations were always being done during various festivals in an effort to promote kendo, but nothing works better than the personal touch and phone calls to the interested individuals. With the advent of YouTube, sharing kendo and kendo information has really improved. This has made for students that are more serious about the practice of kendo. The picture with students in jodan, or high form, were all gathered from spring matsuri demonstrations, who later became the demonstrators themselves. Eventually, they all left for school or just left Maui.

MAYTT: Throughout our conversation, you have praised both sport and traditional kendo, while offering some thoughts on the sportized kendo that is popular in Hawaii. Do you think there is a way for Hawaiian kendo to find the perfect medium between being a sport and a cultural experience?

MS: This is a most difficult question to answer because it has everything to do with the future. Hawaii’s past has left a special legacy that is both questioned and admired. This legacy will always remain, can Hawaii stand shoulder to shoulder with world class competitors without expressing its own version of pride and honour left by the 2nd generation American Japanese? As many senior sensei in Hawaii have stated, we do Hawaiian kendo because it has Hawaiian roots. When my dad was teaching me kakari geiko (all out attack practice) he would tell me to, “Go For Broke” the motto of the 442 regimental combat team. 

The cultural experience that kendo provides is precisely the point of participation in the art that has brought many to learn and join kendo. The sport of kendo usually is a secondary endeavor after reaching a certain level of practice. The need to test one’s skills becomes a desire of the student. This where the balance between sport and tradition comes in. Often students enter a tournament unprepared and come away discouraged. This is where the sensei must properly assess when the readiness of the student is appropriate. My grandfather would say that when a samurai parent would have to send a young son into battle, one characteristic that they would have hoped to have been developed was the fighting spirit. Above all other virtues, the fighting spirit is where the application of the principles of the katana find reality in real life. The application of the principles of the katana in real life is where the point of balance between traditional and sportized kendo is in my opinion. Winning a match can provide short term joy but winning over one’s doubts and fears will give lifelong rewards. 

Kendo begins and ends with rei (the respectful and sincere bow).  This is an immutable statue and tradition of kendo.  Hawaii has yet to have its own motto that truely will reflect its Japanese roots and Hawaii born culture.  When looking back at Dr. Akagi’s ignited fighting spirit when looking back as not having gained respectability and his mighty contributions after, tells me that a truly American Japanese Hawaiin born motto like, Go for Broke could be Hawaii’s future point of balance.  As we used to say, “eh mo betta we go fo Broke”.  Upon this truth of human decisive will power can be the focus of its future.  From the words of a Hawaii born State Senator and Japanese Hawaiian Samurai of WWII’s 422nd Regimental Combat Team member, recipient of the Medal of Honour, Distinguished Service Cross. Bronze Star and Purple Heart, “Each person who participates in the martial arts knows that it enhances their development-mentally, physically and spiritually.  The mastering of inner strength is as important as physical force.“  He also commended instructors and students for contributions to kendo in Hawaii and helping shape their character and the character of their island home.  This he wrote to Hawaii Kendo Federation in congratulations of their 50th anniversary.  He in my opinion is a man that can sincerely define Budo (The Way of The Warrior) in this modern world!  It is my hope that Hawaii’s Kendo will always fight to uphold the honour and spirit of kendo that it had in the past.  Whether Hawaii keeps its seat in the Federation of International Kendo or not I hope it will always hold to the sincere tradition of rei and makoto’s sincere truth.

An image of one of Mitsune Kendo Dojo’s early classes.

I have placed kendo on a very high pedestal one that can hardly be reached as a pure sport. This may be kendo’s downfall or its salvation. Many of Japan’s AJKF most senior leaders have reported the loss of their old supporters as kendo became more and more a sport, losing its way as a true martial art and moving away from its most important values. To place it within the school system, whether public or private will most likely result in little permanent growth due to the waning interest of youth if kendo doesn’t have regular events or regular place in people’s lives. Yet kendo grows as a worldwide sport gathering a growing international following. The cultural experience of kendo in Hawaii will always be blended with the laid back manner of the Hawaiian pace of life. If kendo is to have any real value beyond that of a sport people must see it as a way of approaching life and be able to to adapt it to real life situations. I have given a few examples but in my life it has more than I can count. Kendo in Hawaii will live on in its players and instructors evolving and adapting to changing times and situations  Lastly I will leave you with Tusha Buntin Hawaii’s most recent seventh dan and a man I respect will help shape and strike a balance of sport and cultural experience for kendo in Hawaii. He is featured in the YouTube video Kendo: The Principles of the Sword.

MAYTT: Many practitioners and regional federations claim that kendo is a way or a method to developing one’s character and better understanding one’s self. In your experience, what aspects of kendo provide such an avenue for self-betterment? How does kendo differentiate itself from other activities that claim to help build a practitioner’s character, or is kendo just a small part of the holistic approach to self-betterment?

MS: One’s character is developed through life’s struggles. Kendo’s avenue to develop character is a struggle of sorts between the real physical self and the imagined self. Kakari Geiko tests the limits of one’s physical endurance to exhaustion. In this practice, one can judge how to use the reserves of strength by knowing one’s physical limits. The shiai, or match, with a superior partner will help to keep us on course to betterment. As a result of this, the desire for self-betterment can be transferred to other areas of one’s life.   

In kendo, rank is visible only by one’s own performance, not by the black belt. I compare kendo to the making of the katana, the Japanese sword. From raw iron and sand, steel is forged in the fire of the furnace, then the hard striking and folding of the steel just begins the making of a really valuable blade. Then the sword is formed by the expert hammering of the smith to reveal the semblance of the sword. It is then tempered in a secret ritual of heat treatment. From there, it is polished to become beautiful. This is so similar to the development of one’s own soul and the soul of the samurai, the katana. The virtues of the katana are its sharpness, unbreakable toughness, simplicity, beauty, and symbolic reverence. The virtues of kendo are innate through practice, forming within the kendoist the seven virtues of bushido, which are Courage, Benevolence, Duty, Intelligence, Truth, Loyalty, and Honour; all of which are harmonizing into the nature and personality of the kendoist. 

Through the development of modern kendo, these seven virtues were associated with things such as the seven pleats of the hakama, or the skirt the samurai wore, were kept to remind the kendoist of the development of these virtues. In 1904, my grandfather was able to see and practice the intent of Takaharu Naito to place these virtues into the Nihon Kendo Kata. As an examples the first kata represented courage because of how the student must demonstrate it in order to win.  The second demonstrated benevolence in that when having the opportunity to kill, one would instead cut the wrist of the opponent to win. The third demonstrated duty in that the student must press forward into danger to win. The fourth was intelligence demonstrated that after tension with the opponent the kenshi would detect and intelligently decide the technique to win. The fifth being truth was demonstrated by the unchanging approach taken by the student until the last second to apply the winning technique. The sixth form represented loyalty by staying at one’s position, even when the opponent backs off and thus winning. Honour the seventh form was demonstrated by lowering oneself below the opponent in a humble revelation of victory.

The three roots of Mitsune Kendo Dojo: Masao Sone (left), Michael Sone (center), and Tetsunosuke Sone (right).

While discussing these virtues with my grandfather, he pointed out that the virtues could be transferred to all aspects of life. He also said that because these virtues are practiced with a sword or some appliance, they could be transferred to anything. My father showed me his slide rule that he used as an engineer and my grandfather pointed to his furei, or calligraphy brush, because he was a teacher or kyoshi. So, we can do kendo without the sword I asked, “Can you give me an example?” Thinking a bit, he remembered an incident where Naito Sensei, a magnanimous man, would duel without the sword with another master swordsman. 

One day at practice the headmaster of the Jiki Shin Kage school of swordsmanship came storming into the dojo saying, “Naito, you are doing it all wrong!” My grandfather thought to himself, “Who does this guy think he is showing so much disrespect?” The tension in the dojo was so thick and cold, but Naito Sensei asked politely, “What is the trouble?” “You don’t end our kata that way! You must do it the Jiki Shin Kage way. The hand must be reversed and the sword must be pointing down.” Naito explained that all the submissions for the Nihon Kendo Kata are changed. “In my Hokushin Itto, we close with the sword up and to the side and now it is down, just like your form closes with the sword pointing down.” The high sensei nodded his head and said nothing and left. Everyone in the dojo stared at Naito Sensei, then he laughed and said, “I win! Nobody will remember pointing the sword down with the upside-down hands way of the Jikishinkage, but in the Hokushin Itto, we do the close exactly the same except down instead of up.”  I believe that the Jikishinkage submission became part of the fourth kata. There were many disputes in the formation of the Nihon Kendo Kata, but Naito was adamant about putting the virtues into the kata. In this confrontation with the Jikishinkage master of the old school, Naito sensei uses the concept of honour, found in the seventh kata previously described, to win and preserve the honour of both old schools and the police dojo. He lowered himself below his opponent in humble magnanimity and disarmed his opponent to win. This is an example of using kendo without the sword and transferred in everyday life.

In the seventh kata, the student wins by lowering himself and using a slash to the body to win but moves on to kneel on the ground while keeping an eye on the opponent. This kneeling position has often been questioned for its purpose. Why go down on one knee? Well, the symbolic has been previously explained, but technically Naito Sensei wanted to teach that the force of gravity is one’s friend and an advantage. Naito Sensei was a big man but would glide in on his attacks by using suriashi, sliding footwork, instead of jumping. He would remind the students that if they jumped, they would fight both gravity and the opponent.

An almost divinely sent commission changed kendo right in front of my grandfather’s eyes one day. This would set it apart from the old schools forever. One day around 1905, not sure of the exact date, Takaharu Naito solemnly entered the Tokyo Police Dojo and stood in front of all the said nothing but then read “Find Truth Through Kendo. Signed Emperor Meiji.”  Then Takaharu Naito left the police and closed his dojo. From that point Naito Sensei would help make kendo more than just another martial art, but a truly rich and powerful force to help shape a nation and perhaps the world through its practice. The formation of the Butokukai in Kyoto is one of his more famous accomplishments that Naito Sensei used to fulfill Emperor Meji’s request. Whether to win a tournament or attain a rank or purely practice for personal enjoyment kendo cannot be practiced without touching some aspect of personal or cultural betterment. The virtues do get absorbed. 

MAYTT: Final question. With COVID-19 affecting every aspect of our society and lives, kendo and other martial arts have experienced a major decline in training facilities and practitioners. How do you think kendo in Hawaii, and perhaps in the United States, will rebound from this global crisis? Will there be a major revival, or will the art continue in small pockets once free from the effects of the pandemic?

MS: One day when I was in middle school, I was taken to the home of one of my grandfather’s good old kendo friends and a veteran along with my grandfather in the Russo-Japanese War. He just learned that I was training in kendo and came over to speak to me. He said, “Maybe you will be kendo’s future here.” I thought to myself, “I don’t think so.” He was to be the only man I have ever known to have used the sword in battle. It was while taking a machine gun nest when my grandfather was wounded and both sides soon ran out of ammunition. Seeing the opportunity, my grandfather’s friend attacked with sword in hand against bayoneted rifles. I asked, “What technique did you use?” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t remember. All I remember is that when I turned around, they were all dead.” The reality of old life and death kendo penetrated my soul then. Imagine if kendo had just this battle-stained path to tread on instead of the virtuous path laid down by Naito Sensei’s great challenge. From that point, I was a participant in the evolution of kendo in Hawaii. Kendo will recover only when the youth are not stifled in their interest because of dogmas of traditions and overblown egos and remain inspired by both the past and present, while being able to contribute to kendo’s future. Because the modern students of kendo are not being taught the old-fashioned concepts of virtue like putting into practice the giving of a point to the opponent, those gracious sayings like, “Thank you for showing me my weakness. If that were a real sword, I would be dead.” will forever be lost. The internal training of the disciplining of the human spirit will go missing. The reality of kendo as a martial art can easily be lost if we forget where it comes from. My father would remind me that winning in kendo really means that I just killed someone. 

Everyone wants to win but if matches are judged unfairly, this will only cause real interest in kendo to decline. In the words of Sumi Masatake, a great eighth dan hanshi, who admittedly said that he almost left kendo as a teenager because of such unfair judging. He speaks of this and the importance of fair judging at his many international seminars in foreign countries. Yet the sportized form of kendo that Naito Sensei never really endorsed seems to be the road that the way of kendo will build its future upon. Time will prove if there is a willing and able group of new students always at the sidelines waiting for their chance to step into a new dimension in life experience which kendo definitely offers. Win if we can, but not to the point where one loses their soul or compromise virtue.

Serving many terms as Vice President and Treasurer of the Hawaii Kendo Federation and witnessing the transformation of kendo in Hawaii, I believe through its governance, Hawaii will now be able to contribute the Hawaiian Aloha spirit into kendo in the World Stage. The true Aloha spirit embodies many of the same principles found in the virtues of bushido and will express it on the World Stage, which is the brotherhood of all of mankind. This challenge offered by the pandemic will only assure an evolution of kendo into a much more vibrant and alluring way. Will kendo shrink back into some dark corner of its martial past or carve out a new future into the post-pandemic age? It gives the individual the introspective time to self-analyze one’s purpose in doing kendo. I believe it will be a new way of the sword, the heritage of the past provides a strong place for the rudder to be affixed to navigate towards the future destiny of kendo.

MAYTT: Thank you again for being with us and discussing Hawaiian kendo!

MS: It was my pleasure, and thank you to Wailuku Hongwanji Mission for allowing Mitsune to practice kendo there!

This is the second part of a two part interview. Read the first part here.

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